By Chris Harris at St. James’ Park
It was the best of games; it was the worst of games.
For 45 minutes on Saturday, Arsenal were unplayable. They led within seconds and looked out of sight after ten minutes thanks to a three-goal salvo from Theo Walcott, Johan Djourou and Robin van Persie. When the Dutchman added a fourth before the break, all bets were off.
Then it all went wrong.
Djourou hobbled off, Abou Diaby was sent off for shoving Joey Barton and Arsenal unravelled. Barton rolled in one penalty and converted a contentious second after Leon Best had struck from close range. Cheik Tiote completed the great escape and Newcastle, having chased shadows for so long, had chased down a point.
It was the ultimate ‘game of two halves’ and, at the end of it all, Arsenal had squandered a gilt-edged chance to pile the pressure on Manchester United at the top of the Premier League.
The leaders’ own slip-up at Wolves means this setback is anything but terminal but Arsene Wenger has a job on his hands to lift his players ahead of the next test – against United’s conquerors.
The major injury doubt ahead of this trip north was Alex Song. He was given a 30 per cent chance of recovering from the leg injury he sustained against Everton in midweek but failed to beat those odds. Diaby stepped up from the bench and so did Andrey Arshavin – the Russian replaced Tomas Rosicky.
There was a familiar face on the Newcastle bench – Sol Campbell – and by common consensus this was a good time to face the former Gunner’s latest club. Andy Carroll would not have been fit to face Arsenal but his £35million deadline-day departure to Liverpool had left St. James’ Park under a cloud.
Lest we forget, Carroll’s towering header won the reverse fixture at Emirates Stadium this season and, in his absence, the likes of Djourou and Laurent Koscielny were probably expecting a more comfortable afternoon.
But perhaps not as comfortable as the first half turned out.
A roar greeted the home side as Phil Dowd blew the first whistle but the black-and-white hoards were silenced within 43 seconds. That’s how long it took for Walcott to slip a low shot past Steve Harper after Arshavin’s flick had found him in his favourite position, just right of centre on the shoulder of the last defender.
Newcastle’s fans must be sick of the sight of Walcott – he scored twice here in the Carling Cup in October – but they had other players to worry about soon enough.
The first of those was Djourou. Less than three minutes had elapsed when the Swiss centre back met Arshavin’s pacy left-wing free-kick to direct a header in off the underside of the bar. It was his first goal for the Club and rich reward for his recent form.
Dazed and confused, Newcastle were there for the taking. And Arsenal twisted the knife after 10 minutes with a carbon copy of their opener at West Ham last month. Walcott picked out Van Persie from the right of the penalty area and the Dutchman fired first-time past Harper.
When this place is noisy you can’t hear the pocket of away fans high in the upper reaches of the upper tier. Now they were all you could hear. It was almost eerie.
As Newcastle tried desperately to gain a foothold in the match, Arsenal continued to carve out chances. Walcott sent a ‘pitching wedge’ over the bar from Fabregas’ pass, Arshavin just failed to pick out Wilshere’s charge into the box, Diaby volleyed wide and Harper saved well from Fabregas following a cute flick from Wilshere.
For their part, the hosts looked most dangerous when they fizzed crosses into the Arsenal box. Mike Williamson got up well to meet one but Kevin Nolan inadvertently nodded his header away from danger.
A rather more emphatic header brought the visitors their fourth goal in the 26th minute. A flurry of one-touch passes ended with Sagna in acres of space to measure a cross from the right. Van Persie arrived unmarked to flash a header past Harper.
The Dutchman admitted after his recent Wigan treble that he had come to terms with the prospect of never scoring a hat-trick. Yet he was on the cusp of another treble. Only a wayward finish and a solid Harper save denied him that pleasure before the break.
Arsenal could not have asked for a better start to the first half. They could not have had worse start to the second period.
Within three minutes of the restart Djourou hobbled down the tunnel with a knee injury. A few minutes later Diaby followed him after being shown a straight red card for shoving Barton to the ground – a reaction to a challenge from his fellow midfielder.
Suddenly, Newcastle’s tails were up.
Szczesny saved well from Danny Simpson after the right back bundled his way into the box but the Pole had no chance with Barton’s penalty, hit low to the keeper’s right after Koscielny was adjudged to have fouled Best.
Interestingly, Nolan wrestled Szczesny to the ground as he tried to retrieve the ball after the spot-kick – much like Diaby had treated Barton. The result? A yellow card… for the Arsenal keeper.
Szczesny made another decent stop from Williamson’s header but, with 16 minutes left, he was beaten again. This time Best did well to bring down a left-wing cross and slide the ball under the keeper.
The atmosphere was much different now and Newcastle flew at Arsenal. Szczesny came into his own, saving brilliantly from substitute Nile Ranger and handling a barrage of crosses with great assurance.
But Newcastle sensed a miraculous comeback and Barton gave them added hope when he converted another penalty after Koscielny was again penalised – this time extremely harshly.
The great escape was complete when Tiote slammed in a shot from the edge of the area and Nolan could even have won it for Newcastle when his effort skimmed just wide in stoppage time.
It was Arsenal’s turn to be stunned. But when the dust settles on this crazy weekend, only one thing will matter.
They are closer to the summit.
Referee: Phil Dowd
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